Times -- Ch. 09


May You Live in Interesting Times

Chapter 9

“Are you going to be able to handle everything at Michaelmas yourself,” William asked Abigail. “I have to be in Powick in a few days for the battle, and won’t be back until the quarter-day at the earliest.”

“I should be fine,” Abi said. “We are getting things running smoothly here. What are you doing today?”

“I have to get a couple horses,” William said. “I don’t want to take any from the stables, and leave you short. I’m hoping to be able to leave later tomorrow, and that should get me to Powick on the 22nd, the day before the battle. I don’t want to get there early and have to check in with Fiennes ahead of time, as the battle was a surprise attack.

Soon after William and Joe left to go to the stage office, where he knew there would be horses for sale. He stopped into the bar first, and found his old buddies from Hull: Jerry and Billy. He stopped at their table, where they were nursing small beers. It took a second for them to recognize their old drinking mate in his fine clothes, and when they did, their eyes widened in surprise.

“Hey lads,” William said, taking out a shilling and playing with it in his fingers. Both men stared at it, and the Earl immediately knew they were short of cash. “Do either of you know of a good horseman. I need to buy a good mount, and would like someone to advise me. This is a matter a bit out of James forte.”

“I don’t know nothing about James or his fort,” Billy said. “I were a top stablehand at Hull, afore Charlie come mucking about. I were in the cavalry and went out on a sortie with a few other lads to see what were happenin’. We run into a bunch o’ Cavs, and got chased back. T’were then I got my leg slashed by one of the Cavs. There was two chasing me close and lucky I were carrying a pistol with spread shot in it. I shot one full in the face, and t’other gets hit by the spray. First lad went down, and the second pulled back all bloody. Lads on the walls sent out enough shots and arrows to turn back t’rest. But the first bloke got in a sword slash what ripped the side open on me ‘orse. Good ‘orse too. Got me near to the postern gate afore he tumbled down dead. That’s when I learnt that my leg was all tore up. Couldn’t even stand on it. Couple lads darted out the postern, and dragged me in, then the dockter fellow just cuts the whole leg off’n me.”

Joe sat in rapt silence as the man described the sortie.

“You might be just the lad I’m looking for then,” William said. He looked at Jerry. “Do you know of anyone who can do some sword training?”

“I dunno,” Jerry said. “I were pretty good with a blade afore my arm got shot up. But rich folks like you usually like to hire French sword masters. They’s teachin’ all the rules and stuff for fancy sword fightin’.”

“What about someone who can teach me how to break all the rules, and keep myself alive with a sword. Is there someone who can do that?”

Jerry got a huge smile on his face. “I kin do that, even without one wing. Th’ good un is my sword arm, and if you are green, then I’se able to get you started. And I kin get someone whole to carry on after.”

Just then a maid came by, and William ordered two full breakfasts for the soldiers, and got a roll for himself, since he had eaten at the house. Joe was not about to turn down the chance at a meal, and got a smaller breakfast than the soldiers. The men mostly listened as they inhaled their food, the first they had eaten in days.

“I will need swords and practice swords,” the Earl said to Jerry. “Can you buy some for me? I can leave you with a few pounds. When you get them, take a cab to my house.” Joe can show you to the house. When you get there, ask to see Abigail, my sister, and tell her that the Hobbit says she is to find you a room and give you food as a full staff member.”

“The what?” Jerry said pausing his eating. “Yer means rabbit, doncha?”

“No, Hobbit. Say it for me.”

“’Obbit. What’s a ‘obbit, then?”

“It is a code word for the Lady. She will know what you say is true. Joe will also vouch for you.”

“Thankee, milord,” Jerry said with a nod, and then cleaned up his plate. William gave £5 to Joe, who held the coins tight in his fist. “Change to Abigail,” the Earl said. “Take out a shilling for Jerry, and four-pence for yourself. No beer though. There will be beer at the house, for supper.” Joe nodded, and then left with Jerry.

Billy was just mopping up the last of his breakfast when William explained his mission. “I need horses that will be war trained. So they won’t spook at gunfire. Can we do that?”

Billy looked glum. “Not likely, milord. Any war horses is taken by one army or t’other. Best we just find the best horses we kin, and train ‘em ourselves. We’se gonna need to buy some guns first, though.”

“We will. Can you ride?”

“Getting’ onboard is a bit rough, but when I’se up I kin do awright,” Billy said.

With that they headed out to the stables, where Billy sought out three good horses. William wanted a spare in case he had to flee a battle. A remount would allow him to outdistance most heavily laden soldiers chasing. They also bought tack for the horses, with one going as a pack animal.

From there they went to an armorer, where William bought two pistols and two rifles. These were carried on the pack animal. William had to hoist Billy up on his mount, to the embarrassment of the soldier who was unused to be helped by a Lord. His crutch was stowed into a holster meant for a rifle, and the two men and three horses rode out of town to a meadow where there were only a few sheep grazing. William paid the farmer four-pence to shoot on his land over the next two days, and the man rushed to move his flock to another field.

“’Tis like this,” Billy said. “When yer ‘orse hears the guns, e’ll shy and want to run. You need ter keep him tight in check. You’se new ter him, so tha’ll make it ‘arder. Jist ‘old ‘im tight and land yerself soft if ‘e bucks yer.”

Billy had William trot along a preplanned path, and he shot a rifle at a certain point. As predicted the horse tried to shy away, but William fought him with the reins, and then calmed him with a rub on the side of the neck. They turned and walked back, and at the same spot Billy fired again. The horse jolted again, but not as severely. Again William was able to contain his mount.”

“Yer doin’ good, milord,” Billy said as he reloaded the guns. No balls were loaded, only powder to make the shot. They duplicated the exercise eight or ten times, with the horse panicking less and less as he learned that the frightening sound would not hurt him. The last few passes had the soldier standing closer and closer to the path, firing away from the horse at an angle that allowed it to see the fire and smoke emerge from the rifle. The last pass was only five yards from the gun, and the horse seemed a little tense, but otherwise unafraid.

“Tha’s good,” Billy said. “We do this fer a coupla weeks and ‘e’ll be as good as any ‘orse in any army. Then we starts on t’other horse.”

“The problem is we don’t have weeks. We only have today, and tomorrow morning.”

“Ach! Den I guess we needs ter do more t’day. I were gonna give him a break, but seems we kin do more. This time I wants yer to walk past me, an’ fire yer pistol. Makes sure yer holds it high oer ‘is head. Yer don’t wants ‘im ter feel the powder. If ‘e feels any pain, ever’ thing is lost.”

They did that exercise for the next two hours, with William handing the spent pistol to Billy and taking the loaded one. Billy reloaded as the horse and Earl made their return march. At the very end of the day, Billy decided to have a fusillade, with all four guns loaded. As the horse approached the soldier, he fired his rifles one after another, while William fired his pistols one after the other. In all, four shots rang out in 15 seconds, and the horse continued on, almost calmly.

William helped Billy mount the second horse again, which was a little shy from all the shooting, although Billy had tried calming him between shots, getting that horse also inured to the sounds. The packhorse was tethered, and was also getting used to the sound, as terrified as it had been at first.

----- ---- -- ------

Joe approached Abigail after breakfast, looking upset.

“Milady, I’se a question. If I’se promised to not say nothing ‘bout something to someone … an important someone, is it wrong fer me not to tell you?”

“That is a rather convoluted question, Joe,” Abi said. “Tell me what you know, and I will decide.”

“K. I doan know what a convol-thing is. But I promised Miss Gabrielle I won’t say nothing. But her da’ is not eating the food we takes him. He gives it to folks he gambles with at th’ Fleet.”

“What?” Abi nearly shrieked. She calmed down a bit, and then spoke to the boy. “You did right to tell me this, Joe. Now run along to the stables and tell them I want to use the carriage today to go to the Fleet after dinner.” For the past few days the wagon had been used for the daily trip.

At dinner she told Gabrielle that she knew her father was not eating. The girl looked relieved. “I’m glad Joe said something. Father made me promise not to tell, but he is starting to look ill. I have to do what my father says, don’t I?”

“Not when it can affect his health, dear,” Abi said. She turned to Delilah, who was serving another course, and told her that she wanted a slightly smaller plate for the Duke, and a tin of soup, which was not normally included in the meal.

Immediately after eating, Joe, Abi and Gabrielle went out to the yard, where Joseph was waiting with the carriage. He drove them to the prison, where the three entered as Joseph waited in the carriage outside.

Inside Abi led the others to the Duke’s cell, and found the man laying in his bed, too weak to rise. Three other prisoners were in the cell, and they started forward when the food arrived.

“Th’ dinners mine,” said one rough looking character. “Dese louts gets the rolls.”

“None of you get anything,” Abi said. “Get out of this cell.”

“Not wit’out er food,” the big man said, stepping forward. “We’s earned it fair and square in cards with th’ old coot. Give it up.”

Abi had enough, and she pulled her dagger. “Back off now, and get out. I doubt your games are ’fair and square’. You have been taking advantage of an old sick man, and you have lost your winnings. None of you will get anything from him.”

“I’se getting’ my dinner,” the man said, darting past Abi towards Gabrielle, who shrank back as Joe stepped in front. Suddenly, Abi’s dagger flicked, and the man started bleeding from his nose. She had cut the septum between his nostrils, and more than a little blood was flowing.

“You bitch,” he screamed. “You’se stuck me.”

“I did,” Abi said as the bleeding man backed up. If you are not out of here in 10 seconds, there will be another cut, and it will be your throat opened up. I know how: I’ve done it before.”

All the men dashed out of the cell, and Abi closed the door. She went over to the Duke, who had struggled into a sitting position. “We have soup for you today, milord. I feel it will be best to start with, if you haven’t been eating,” Abi said. “Your daughter will sit next to you and feed you as we talk.”

“I can’t eat the dinner,” the Duke said. “Stoner is right. It is his. He won it at cards. I owe five dinners and eight rolls right now. The food has to go to them. Although if you were to bring double helpings …”

“Then you would just gamble those away quicker,” Abi concluded for him. “None of those men will collect. Your dinner will be served to you in here in the early afternoon, and your rolls will be kept with the guards.”

“But if I renege, then they won’t gamble with me anymore,” the Duke mewled.

“And that is the whole point. First you gamble your inheritance away. Then you gamble yourself into prison. And now you are gambling your health away. Do you intend to leave this poor girl feeding you an orphan? A washerwoman in some London slum?”

“Gabrielle? No. I would never do that,” he said.

“Well, that is exactly what you are doing. The gambling has to stop. Now. If your reneging keeps you out of the game, that is good, isn’t it.”

“But it gets so boring in here,” the Duke said.

“Then you can find something else to do. Whittling out of wood, perhaps.”

“They don’t allow us no knives bigger than a penknife,” the Duke said.

“Then perhaps you can teach some of the illiterate ones in here to read and write. I’ll send a slate and some chalk. But if I find you gamble them away, I’ll stop your food and let you starve. Okay?”

“Okay,” the man said sullenly. “You are right. I have to stop. I promise I won’t gamble away anything you send.”

Just then there was a rap on the cell door, and it was pushed open by the warder. He looked upset.

“A convict said that he was assaulted in here, and that his meal was stolen,” the warder said.

“So you believed a known criminal’s word over that of a Lady,” Abigail said with her haughtiest voice. “The only meal in here is the one that the Duke is eating. Others may think they have a claim to his food, but they do not.”

“There was word of a dagger, milady,” the warder was speaking much more respectfully now.

“Did you see a dagger, sir?” Abi said. “Do you see a dagger now?” She handed two pound coins to the warder, who immediately decided that there was no weapon in the prison.

“That brings us to the next question. Convicts have been taking the rolls that we bring for the Duke. Is it possible that we leave them somewhere in the guard house? He can come in and eat one there in the evening, and another for breakfast. Eat them: not take them elsewhere to eat, or otherwise dispose of.” She held out another two pounds. “This for the next 20 weeks: the period we expect him to be here. That works out to a shilling a roll, more than the buns are worth.”

“Aye, we can do that,” the warder said, taking the two rolls from Joe.

“And there was a man in here who left leaking quite profusely from a nosebleed. I would appreciate it if you let him know that if anything happens to the Duke in retribution, he will be sorry he was born. He’ll never leave this place, and the time he spends here with be without the rest of his nose, or either of his ears. Perhaps with only a finger or two left on either hand. Let him know that?”

The warder left, and as expected the men who were in the cell earlier were standing just outside the door and had heard Abi’s dire threats. The men scattered, and then two watched from a distance as their rolls went into the guardhouse. The Duke took almost an hour more to eat his meal, and then hugged his daughter tighter, promising her he would reform.

At the door to the prison, the warder appeared and asked Abi to show her dagger. He wanted to be sure that there was not a dangerous weapon left in the jail. Abi pulled it from its holster between her breasts, and then popped it back. The man merely nodded, and soon they were back in the carriage.

On the way back, Abi noted that there were many wagons parked on the streets, selling coals, wood, flour, and other commodities that could be sold out doors. Back at the house she asked James if there were any items from the estate that could be sold in such a manner. He suggested faggots. There was a fairly large wooded area in the northwest corner of the lot, and the mortgage the Duke had signed had forbidden removal of any wood from it. The gardeners were now trying to clear it out, with five years of ground fall wood now being piled up near the barn, more than the house would need for years now that there was a good supply of coal.

Abi suggested that tomorrow, when the wagon would go to Fleet again, it be stocked with wood faggots. Joe could sell them from the wagon as they travelled, and then the driver could sell more while Joe and Gabrielle were in the prison. The bundles of sticks would only sell for a few pence, but it would help pay the expenses of sending the wagon out daily.

The next day Gabrielle took a slate and chalk, and one of the broadsheet tracts so her father could start to teach the inmates who wanted to better themselves. Three days later she came with an odd request. The inmates wanted to learn to read the 51st psalm, and could a Bible be provided.

That sent Abi back to the prison again, this time in the wagon so she could see how the vending operation worked. In the prison she presented the Bible to the Duke, she found that while five men were trying to learn to read, dozens more were only interested in having the Duke read the 51st Psalm to them. It was as she thought. The men were only interested in hearing the psalm so they could memorize it. That particular psalm was known in the underworld as the ‘neck verse’ and could be used to get a trial moved from the civic courts to the church courts.

For over 400 years criminals who were literate would be tried in church courts where hanging was not a punishment, like in the civic courts (often for crimes like theft of a very small amount). By reading the 51st Psalm, a man could claim to be literate, which in the distant past meant he must be a cleric. The law would not change for another 50 years, and until then criminals wanted to be able to recite the psalm from memory, as a way of ‘proving’ they were literate.

Some judges were starting to catch on, and asked for a different psalm be read, but in the underworld it was thought that knowing the 51st was enough. When Abigail explained all this to the Duke, he agreed to not read the 51st Psalm. As a result, he had a few more convicts join his literacy classes, but most of the men wanted only the short cut, not the knowledge, and left grumbling.

That was the last time that Abigail went to the prison. After 20 weeks the Duke was bailed out by William, and brought back home in early spring. His students were able to read and write simple items, and could sign their name. They were not literate enough to read the Bible in court, however.

The Duke seemed a reformed man. He was offered the £10 a week by the Earl, but saved most of it. He wanted to buy a set of clothes that he personally owned, and wanted to save money to buy nice Christmas gifts for his wife and child.

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